When John Grabowski started cutting hair at 507 1/2 Madison Street in 1957, all he knew about the shop was that another barber had cut hair there before him.
Forty-seven years later, when he retired, he sold the building, which included the 507 and 509 storefronts on either side to his neighbor and tenant, Von Dreele-Freerksen, a construction firm with a specialization in historical restoration. Acquiring John's space would unite their row of storefronts, which included Prairie Plus, Von Dreele-Freerksen's kitchen renovation business.
As they started to remove the accoutrements of more than five decades of barbering, they discovered something behind the mirror and bureau that lined the shop's east wall. When his workmen cut into the plaster, Doug Freerksen recalls, they saw something painted on the bricks beneath. It turned out to be a wall-length ad for "Harry Besserer, Ladies & Gents Tailoring. Cleaning, Pressing, Remodeling, Repairing. 503 Madison St. Phone Oak Pk. 7429."
Freerksen called Frank Lipo at the Historical Society, who did some research and found that the building housing the 507 Madison storefront was built c. 1919. The first listing in "McCoy's Oak Park Street Directory" for 507 1/2 comes in 1923, so Besserer's ad was applied to an exterior wall, and when the extension was built a few years later, the ad was simply plastered over.
Maybe its disappearance hastened Besserer's departure because Lipo discovered the tailor had moved his shop to 609 Madison by 1925.
Other barbers were associated with the storefronts throughout the years. Gustav Drescher was listed at 507 in 1922-23, and he also lived in back. George Lampere was cutting hair at 507 1/2 in 1930. Before that, Goodhart's Laundry Depot operated out of the storefront, but the space was owned by W.M. Ruhn, a barber from Downers Grove.
The ad has long outlived the tailor, and it will continue to advertise his long-defunct business because Freerksen says they're incorporating it into the overall preservation atmosphere of their new, expanded digs. John's old barbershop will become a conference room, and Freerksen is delighted to have the presence of Harry Besserer looming over the proceedings.
They had to cut into the ceiling in order to expose the entire ad and installed track lighting to flood down on it, so they aren't downplaying the find by any means. They also discovered maple flooring, which they had to replace, and the new maple floor now serves as a model for customers who come in. Freerksen says they've sold three thus far to people who saw this one and loved it.
Incorporating history, he says, sends a message to clients that they are committed to historic restoration, so he's delighted to have a wall-length ad from the early 1920s in his conference room.
"We work with the existing architecture," he said. "This allows us to show what we do."
And he loves the sign's details, including the "union bug" emblem in the corner by the name of "C. Nielsen, painters and decorators union." Painted freehand, the ad also features small arts and craft designs for adornment.
The colors are copper, green and rust, Freerksen said, very 1920s, and if you look closely, you can make out the ghost image of a sign underneath, though Freerksen can't decipher what it advertised. The 6-digit phone number predates even the VI (for Village) and EU (for Euclid) prefixes that some old-timers still remember.
Freerksen plans to recreate the sign's lettering style in gold leaf on the new entryway for Prairie Plus. The glass door to 507 1/2, meanwhile, sports numerous old barbershop decals. Freerksen plans to give the glass to Grabowski as a memento. He thinks they'll then seal up the doorway, weatherstrip it, insulate it, "and call it a day."
They have been renovating the rest of their space as well, proceeding at a snail's pace, Freerksen said, because "the wallet is thin." When finished, they'll have approximately 4,000 square feet of space. Rehabbing work is time-consuming and painstaking, he notes, but the end result is that "everything in here becomes a marketable display." They're using a variety of plasters, flooring, doors, etc. to show clients what's available.
Freerksen said they're also opening a new wood and stone shop on Roosevelt Road, which will feature, among other things, imported pizza ovens.
"It's fun, interesting," Freerksen said. "You gotta have a reason to get up in the morning."
John the Barber, as he was known along this stretch of Madison, was "a good guy and a great landlord," Freerksen said, and they're still tending to his former customer base.
"For months we had shaggy people coming in here asking for John," Freerksen said. "They looked so disappointed."
They would ask, "Where do you get your hair cut?" looking panicky.
Freerksen understands. He was a regular at John's too. But he had the inside track. John would walk over and let him know when he didn't have any other customers.
"It was so convenient," he recalls.
As for 503 Madison, where Harry Besserer once chalked and cut, Par Construction now occupies the storefront.
And the back of 503 was where I used to fold Chicago Americans each day before setting off on my paper route in the early '60s.
There's history everywhere you look.